Neil Best: Land of the giants

Northampton's new flanker speaks to Chris Hewett about why he left Ulster, his chances of making it back into the Irish side, and why the Premiership is the challenge that now gets his blood racing
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The Independent Online

The Guinness Premiership is routinely described as the toughest league in world rugby. It just got tougher. The former France flanker Serge Betsen, popularly known as "the Grim Reaper", materialised at Wasps during the summer. In a few weeks, the equally ruthless South African back-rower Wikus van Heerden will arrive at Saracens. And who makes up the Unholy Trinity of back-row recruits? None other than Neil Best, who can make Betsen look like a pacifist. The Premiership may never be more dangerous to life and limb, unless someone recruits Joe Frazier, Attila the Hun and half a dozen battle-scarred mercenaries.

Best left his native Ulster for newly-promoted Northampton after Jim Mallinder, the Midlanders' director of rugby, invited him to Franklin's Gardens for "a look around". He also invited Best's good friend and fellow loose forward, the hulking great No 8 Roger Wilson, and went on to sign the pair of them. They played together in last weekend's opening-round victory over Worcester in front of 13,000 spectators, the vast majority of whom revelled in their larcenous activities around the breakdown and roared their approval at every big-hit tackle. What is more, the newcomers currently live together. What's going on here? Are they joined at the hip?

"It seems that way," said Best, sending one eyebrow in a northerly direction and shaking his head mournfully. "I drive him everywhere, make sure he's where he needs to be, generally look after him ... essentially, we're one and the same person. Or to put it another way, it's like having a giant pet." He has a way with words, does the Ulsterman.

There are those who believe that the people who play this sport at a professional level are, almost by definition, less interesting than those who played in the amateur era – that the more an individual becomes entangled in full-time union, the less of an individual he becomes. They should spend half an hour chewing the fat with the 29-year-old international from Belfast, who could hardly be more different if he tried.

During Best's man-of-the-match display for Ireland in a 21-6 victory over Australia a couple of years ago, Keith Wood interrupted his television analysis to describe him as "slightly mad" – a bit rich, you may think, given that the revered hooker looked and played as if he had been born into the Addams family. Mallinder, meanwhile, describes his new recruit as "nuts", adding: "He's a great bloke, mind you, and a terrific asset. It's just that he plays with this phenomenal intensity."

But there is more to Bes than an enthusiastically gung-ho embrace of his brutal trade. He did not accept a deal of any description until he was 22, when Ulster tempted him with a development contract, and was 23 when he finally signed up full time. "Robbie Brink, the South African player, picked up a bad injury and was forced to retire, so there was a hole in the Ulster back row," recalled Best, who until then had played with Malone and Belfast Harlequins for what he described as "a few quid in beer money". At the time, he was completing a master's in chemical engineering at Queen's University. "I always loved my rugby, but I thought I ought to get myself an education first and foremost. I'm glad I did it this way round, because I don't want to finish up with 'rugby union player' on my CV and nothing else. At least I can show people a bit of paper that proves I have the ability to learn."

One thing people learnt about Best during his time with Ulster was that there was no more implacable defender of his province's honour. For a long spell, it was well nigh impossible for travelling teams to win at Ravenhill. Best summed it up colourfully, recalling how "opponents tended to leave our place with nothing much, apart from a few free sandwiches and maybe a girl's phone number". Until the start of last season, Ulster had lost only twice in 18 Heineken Cup ties in East Belfast. "There was a period, certainly, when I'd think: 'A home match? That's my win bonus sorted, then. What shall I do with the money this time? I think I'll get myself a nice pair of shoes.'"

So what happened? The 2007-08 European campaign was miserable: Ulster leaked 30 points to Gloucester in the first round and were also taken down by the Ospreys. When they won, it was by one point against Bourgoin, who tend to travel with all the enthusiasm of a claustrophobic on a pot-holing holiday.

"I always intended to leave Ulster when my contract expired at the end of last season, so I didn't quit as a result of those results," Best said. "But it was certainly a disappointing way to go. We won the Celtic League in 2006, but for some reason started struggling at home the following season. There were changes of coaches and method, but I can't put my finger on anything specific. I know this much: the players there now have to work much harder. There are lots of meetings, lots of training sessions and no day off. That wouldn't have suited me at all. I like my days off.

"Not that it's easy here. It's just that at Northampton, things are demanding in a different way. Ulster did a lot for me and their infrastructure is improving, but the set-up there is nothing like the one here. They just don't have the things Northampton have. There is nothing for me to do here but get on with my business.

"I can't moan about the food, or complain about the gym facilities being crap, or gripe about the fact that I can't get a massage when I need one. Everything is in place: it's an idiot-proof, no-excuses environment. It means the onus is entirely on me to play my best stuff.

"That brings its own pressure, of course. I honestly can't remember being more anxious about a game than I was before last Sunday's match with Worcester. There was a big crowd in – I loved the supporters at Ravenhill, but Franklin's Gardens is also a passionate place in its own way – and I badly wanted to do well. I was so relieved to get the victory. I feel a whole lot better about going to Newcastle with that behind me."

His 18-cap Test career may also be behind him. "Will I play for Ireland again? Probably not," he said. "It's hard to know; if I play well in a competition of this standard, I may get another opportunity. I'd love to think they'll give me a chance, but to be honest, I don't think I was ever given that much of a chance anyway. I never found myself in the position where I could string some momentum together. I'd play a game here and there, but then I'd be back on the bench.

"Quite frankly, it's not something I think about. I've made my choices and I'm here to concentrate on Northampton. I haven't received a call from anyone in the Ireland set-up telling me that by playing over here, I've put myself out of the running. But as I've changed my mobile number, I wouldn't know if they've phoned or not, would I?"

Few Premiership followers will keel over with shock if Best tops his club's tackle count this season. The defensive chores are, after all, his first love. But in his strongest performances for Ireland, in 2006 against the three leading southern-hemisphere nations, there was a hint of something else in the Best armoury. Is he unfairly pigeonholed as a mere smash-and-grab merchant?

"I'm a good soldier," he replied. "I've joined Northampton to learn and improve, to make the most of whatever talent I have as a rugby player, but I'm more than happy to follow orders, and if Jim wants me to concentrate on smashing people all afternoon long, on being physical and destructive and all the rest of it, that's fine by me. I like smashing people. But I enjoy all aspects of rugby, and if I'm asked to do some different things, I'll do everything I can to oblige. If Jim suddenly tells me I'm taking the kicks at goal, I'll be straight out there practising. Not that I expect him to go down that particular road. I think I'll do more tackling than kicking this season."

My other life

"I'm not sure I have another life. Rugby takes up pretty much all my time and there are occasions when I wonder if there is anything else I can actually do. I have my degree in chemical engineering, but that's just pushing buttons. People aren't interested in pushing buttons; actually, I'm not so very sure I'm much interested in it myself. The main project is buying a house in Northampton, and when that's sorted and my girlfriend has settled in – she's just popped over to Belfast to fetch her car, but she's coming back – we both plan to learn the drums. Why? It's been an idea of hers for quite a while and thinking about it, I quite fancy giving it a go myself. Cooking is another thing I have in my mind. I'd think I'd like to be a chef some day. I suppose the truth of it is that I'm getting to the point where I should start planning for a life after rugby. Right now, I don't have a firm idea of what or where. But I have an education and some decent qualifications, so in theory I'm starting from a good position."

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